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The 17 Gun Salute

Montel Williams, I follow along, I nod my head, but I keep bumping it against those seventeen guns.

You’re a model citizen: a role model of decency and accomplishment. You’ve seemingly done it all, academically, patriotically, and even artistically. Your acumen and leadership were already on display as a student. Your military record further exemplifies those traits and reveals your patriotism. You’ve long been a community activist, reaching out to parents and children, pulling outstretched hands to higher ground. You even created an acclaimed TV show and have acquired celebrity status. You’ve done so much; and you own seventeen guns.

It was the late 60s. We were not model citizens; we were anathema to tradition and stability. The world seemed ablaze as we left our quiet homes and re-identified on volatile campuses throughout America. We became the peace and love generation that would fix it all: the pretentious establishment, the bigotry, the war. We attempted much, accomplished a little; and we did a lot of drugs.

You’re getting something from it, and on some level it must be pretty intense, or you wouldn’t bother. So what is it? When you look at your guns, what are you processing?  What’s passing through your mind, your body, as you touch and contemplate them? Is it a visceral thing: something you feel in your gut? Is it cerebral: a thought process?

The drugs were often glorified: higher consciousness, communal, liberating, etc. Perhaps they were that too, but it was the visceral component that truly beckoned. The drugs were exhilarating and made us feel good; we wouldn’t have bothered had they not.

Your sincerity was obvious as you spoke on the Parkland tragedy. You visibly fought to hold back tears; the empathy was real as you consoled the surviving victims of yet another warped mind. You reiterated ideas that had already made you an enemy to the gun-rights fringe: legislation that would bring a little sanity to crazed interpretations of freedom. You’ve appeared on network news with the message. You’re on a laudable mission to prevent the next tragedy. You also own seventeen guns; one of them is an assault rifle.

It was illegal; we usually bought from a friend of a friend. Somewhere down that bucket line of acquaintances was the meeting of two cultures: those who bought, and those who brought. The generation of peace, love, and liberation interfaced with another – one of crime, violence, and oppression. Beyond the friend of a friend, was the other reality: incarcerations, violence, and maybe a few ruthless men becoming rich and powerful. For most the association with danger was distant; we played up the “Easy Rider” edge to bolster our peace and love personas.  Our heroes (rock stars and celebrities) often celebrated the look: humanitarian love, born to be wild. It all felt good, and that was reason enough to ignore possible contradictions.

There’s no TV advertisement, but to willing minds, the allure is promoted daily on network news: the transformative power of guns. Plenty of intentional and glossy advertisement is found elsewhere, even in family oriented stores like Walmart: numerous magazines devoted to guns and ammunition. To anyone over fifty, it’s clear they’ve evolved; the progeny of “Outdoor Life” and” Field & Stream” reach beyond the sport/hunting crowd. Issues like “Shooting Times”, “Combat Handguns”, and “Sniper Journal” are formatted to whet the appetite for a civilian arms race. The NRA cultivates the absurd paradigm: more weapons in more hands for a safer world.

So we have this reality: the constitutional right to bear arms, a gun culture that’s gone rabid, and about 13,000 murders every year. Mixed into this are thousands of people like you: model citizens, not rabid at all, each with their own version of “seventeen” guns. You’re one of the many goodhearted, mentally sound people, who own lots of guns. It’s likely a preferential choice. You probably don’t live on the far rural edge where hunting might actually be more the recreational. You probably don’t live in a neighborhood so violent that only gun ownership offers a sense of security (though statistics reveal added risk). There’s probably no actual survival benefit provided by the guns you own. Quite likely the opposite is true, yet you own seventeen guns and one of them is an assault rifle.

Here’ something that’s more than probable: on some level the guns make you feel good. You wouldn’t bother if they didn’t. They’re like drugs in that way, but with a peculiar difference: drugs are designed to make us feel good, but have an association with death and violence; guns are designed for deadly violence, but are associated with feeling good. Kind of weird, isn’t it? You can’t really get away from it though; in spite of the comfort and good feeling induced through ownership, guns find a way to make their original purpose known (to the tune of 13,000 murders and 20,000 suicides every year).

How important is that feeling to you? Is it overpowering? Is it strong enough to preempt other values you might cherish? Does it introduce danger to you, to family, or others nearby? Would, or could you step away if it did? These familiar questions are often asked in substance abuse circles. You might think it a stretch, perhaps even an insult to ask them here. You’re one of the responsible gun owners, after all. It’s legal; you can afford it, you’re aware of the dangers, and take all necessary precautions. Exposure poses no risk to yourself or family. There’s no need for concern, right? You’ve always stayed on top of it; you’re an enlightened connoisseur of fine weapons.

What If you stretch the parameters beyond self and family? If your gun ownership posed a threat to distant strangers, would you give them up? What if the connection was indirect, but still quite real, would you feel any anguish? Would the attraction hold sway or would you let the guns go?

You and thousands of other responsible gun owners are exemplary citizens providing positive role models for others to notice, perhaps to even emulate.   Somewhat oddly, that’s part of the quandary. More than economic support from a purchase, your good and stable image gives cover to an industry void of humanistic soul. Your persona lends mask and white gloves to a culture with bloodied hands. It sounds dramatized when put that way, but how better to portray it? Machines designed expressly for killing are hyped into the hands of a vulnerable population with reckless, even purposeful abandon. Strength, integrity, and patriotism are part of the hype, and your responsible model citizenry (tied to seventeen guns) provides it.

You’ve brought seventeen monsters into the world. You know it; it’s why you keep them in a dark place under lock and key. You monitor them; you’re a careful and conscientious keeper, bringing them out only under safe conditions. Will it always be so? You know they will outlive you; they’ll be here when you’re not. Have you made arrangements? Who will provide for their care; will it be someone as concerned and conscientious as you? Eventually they’ll pass from one hand to the next: likely someday into hands not so much responsible as your own. Whether remembered or not, it will still be your legacy. When they’re finally set loose and find flesh, the guns will have more meaning than all else you’ve left behind. Each explosion will be part of the legacy: part of the seventeen gun salute.

They’re only guns. You’d give them up, destroy them all in a heartbeat to slip back through time and rescue even one child. You can’t do that; February 14thhas been written. Today is unfolding, moment by moment. Tomorrow’s slate is clean; it can still be a beautiful day.

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